Phoebe Cates – Underrated physical comedy gold

When you think about Phoebe Cates, what is it that you remember most? Chances are if you’re a heterosexual male who grew up in the 80s, you’ll instantly picture that iconic pool scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Or if not then maybe your memory will veer towards Joe Dante’s Gremlins films, in which Cates played Kate, the butter-wouldn’t-melt girl who is oft tortured by the titular critters.

But for me it’s Drop Dead Fred that comes to mind whenever I think of Cates. The reason is that her physical comedy performance is so great and overlooked that each time I re-watch I’m reminded just how impressive her skills are.

So why is it overlooked?

I think it’s actually a testament to the film’s concept that leads the world at large to forget how difficult Cates’ role was. Let me try to explain that better:

Drop Dead Fred is about an imaginary friend causing havoc in a grown ups’ life. We all know that. So in scenes like the Italian restaurant where Lizzie (Cates) is on a date with Micky (Ron Eldard), and Fred (Rik Mayall) brings about total chaos by having her fling her dinner plate across the room and spill her drink, whilst flailing her limbs around uncontrollably, we understand that Fred is an invisible force to all but Lizzie. Sometimes we see him behind her, using her like a puppet, but other times, crucially, we don’t. And in these moments, when we are given the same POV as the other diners, Cates’ performance truly shines.

How often is Bruce Campbell (rightly) praised for his slapstick performance in Evil Dead 2? We all love the moment his hand becomes possessed and starts attacking him, because we know that really it was a tour-de-force moment of shtick from Campbell, beating himself up with his own hand at the behest of Sam Raimi.

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The difference in Drop Dead Fred is that we are constantly of the mindset that Fred is the one behind Lizzie’s eratic behaviour. So even though we can clearly see Cates giving an incredible solo performance, battling to keep her plate on the table, and desperately trying to look normal whilst her arms are thrown about, we sub-consciously give the credit to Rik Mayall (which is of course no bad thing).

But to me Cates’ performance is just as mesmerising and hilarious as Bruce Campbell’s self mutilating Ash. It has all the trappings of the great slapstick performers of old. It is a physical performance that should be remembered and revered, but is one that nobody really seems to mention these days.

So let’s all involuntarily raise our arms in a twitchy salute to an under appreciated comedy performance!

James is a movie obsessive with a particular love for scores and screenplays. He has written for numerous blogs, sites and cinemas and has been involved in several screenwriting projects. He can usually be found in front of a large plasma screen devouring Westerns, 80s pulp, Jimmy Stewart movies or anything by the Coens.

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